A woman who claims she was forced to resign for trying to protect “seven potential victims of violence” by calling out a pair of Okaloosa County judges is suing her former employer, J.D. Peacock, in his role as clerk of court and comptroller.
Beth McDonald had worked for the Clerk of Court’s office for more than 18 years and had risen to middle management status before her Nov. 19 exit, the lawsuit says. She had been processing domestic violence injunctions since 2002.
She claims that Peacock, as clerk, has neglected his duties by maintaining a flawed system for filing domestic violence injunctions. It alleges that he forced her resignation because she sent out an email that notified Circuit judges Terry Ketchel and John Gontarek that she had seven emergency injunctions that needed signing, including three that were a day old.
“Clerks personnel are trained to treat the injunctions as emergencies because they could, quite literally, be the difference between life and death for the person seeking protection from violence,” the lawsuit states.
The email angered Clerk’s Office administrators because they feared retribution from the judges,” particularly Ketchel, the lawsuit states.
McDonald’s lawsuit was filed March 1 by attorney Richard Johnson, who did not return a phone call seeking comment. A motion to dismiss was filed Monday. It states that McDonald resigned after being reprimanded for “various violations of Clerk of Court’s policies” and was not subject to an “adverse personnel action” as she claims.
It also calls for dismissal of McDonald’s claim that she was retaliated against as a whistle-blower.
Peacock could not comment on pending litigation, but did say the safety of domestic violence victims is a priority for his office.
"We follow all administrative orders put in place by the court and use every legal tool available to serve victims," he said. "I have spent my entire professional career protecting our community, and assisting domestic violence victims is especially important to me and our office."
McDonald alleges her co-workers had done everything in their power through the day Nov. 15 to contact Gontarek, “who was first up on the rotation to sign the injunctions.”
At shortly after 5 p.m., following established protocol, the staff contacted Ketchel, the “duty” judge, the lawsuit says.
Ketchel “was extremely irritated and upset” by the call, the lawsuit claims, and he refused to sign anything.
“He told (the caller) that he’s tired of this and the same thing happened last week,” the lawsuit said. “Judge Ketchel said he was not going to review them (the injunctions.)”
The crisis escalated when four more emergency injunction requests were turned in the following day, and Gontarek was still nowhere to be found, according to the lawsuit.
At 1:38 p.m. on Friday Nov. 16, McDonald sent out the email that riled her superiors, her lawsuit states. It references the Clerk’s Office inability to contact Gontarek, as well as Ketchel’s refusal to review the outstanding injunctions.
Shortly after the email was sent, John Anderson, who is second in charge in the Clerk’s Office under Peacock, brought McDonald into his office, the lawsuit says, and “launched into a bellowing, profanity-laced tirade.”
“As soon as Ketchel sees this, it’s over ... there will be serious repercussions,” the lawsuit quotes Anderson as saying. “He’s gonna want blood. He’s gonna want (expletive) blood.”
An hour after the email went out, Gontarek walked all seven injunctions to customer service, the complaint says. It also states Gontarek claimed to have been in contact with the Clerk’s Office at 5 p.m. Nov. 15, at the time three injunctions remained unsigned, and been given an “all clear” on the day’s workload.
“Startled at this news, (McDonald) immediately sent an email out,” the suit alleges. “(She) received replies saying (her staff) had not spoken with him.”
Two hours after screaming at McDonald, Anderson met with her again, the lawsuit says. He confronted her with several alleged violations of office policy and told her she had the weekend to decide whether she wanted to resign or be fired.
“None of the reasons for termination had ever been mentioned before and the firing officials admitted to researching (McDonald’s) email and phone records in the scant two hours before the firing meeting,” the suit alleges.
The lawsuit accuses Peacock and his top managers of knowingly maintaining a system “that had no mechanism for getting a judge to act on a petition for injunction when the court’s own mechanism breaks down.”
It claims the “neglectful system” is maintained despite warnings “that something needed to be done about the risk of citizens suffering violence or even death because the Clerk’s Office was unable to secure a judge’s signature on an injunction.”
The complaint claims Peacock is guilty of gross mismanagement, malfeasance, misfeasance and a gross neglect to duty, and that McDonald was fired for trying to rectify his official misconduct.
It seeks monetary damages and attorneys fees.
Ketchel, Gontarek and Circuit Judge Michael Flowers, the administrative judge for Okaloosa County, were not available Friday for comment. Kasey Watson, a spokesperson for the First Judicial Circuit, said the judges would not comment on pending litigation, "and neither will court administration."